Analysts and observers of regional politics have noted several key takeaways from the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings, which Cambodia recently hosted. It was the first time in two years that the summit was held in-person, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 55th AMM officially kicked off on August 3, followed by related meetings such as the ASEAN partnership meetings between the US, China, Japan, Russia and Australia, to name just a few of the countries whose top diplomats were present in Phnom Penh on August 3-5.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn said that in some cases the “lively” meetings were “heated” due to the current state of global affairs.
Following the primary meeting, a 29-page joint communique was released, but prior to that, ASEAN had also issued a statement on the increasing tensions across the Taiwan Strait following the visit of US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to the self-governing island, which China has long claimed as its territory under its “One China” policy.
Three analysts at the Singapore-based think-tank FULCRUM at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s ASEAN Studies Centre – Sharon Seah, Joanne Lin and Melinda Martinus – outlined six points of interest to recap last week’s meetings, on topics ranging from Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to the Myanmar crisis and the unity of the ASEAN bloc.
Regarding the heated developments concerning Taiwan, they said in their analysis published on August 8 that ASEAN deserved credit for its promptly-issued joint statement on the matter, which was its first ever on the China-Taiwan controversy, wherein it expressed concerns about regional volatility and the potential for miscalculations due to China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait while calling for maximum restraint by all parties.
They said ASEAN leaders showed skilful use of the art of diplomacy on this issue by urging calm while giving China assurances through their reaffirmation of the bloc’s respect for the “One China” policy.
The analysts also noted the strong stance on the latest developments in Myanmar taken by Prime Minister Hun Sen as ASEAN chair, who stated that the bloc would have to rethink its role vis-a-vis the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) in light of the recent execution of political opponents by Myanmar’s State Administration Council’s (SAC) despite repeated appeals from its fellow ASEAN member states.
“It was uncharacteristic of Cambodia to take such a tough line, but months of effort amid growing criticisms of ASEAN’s impotence may have played a part,” they said, adding that the statement could also serve as a signal for the SAC that it must do more to generate some good will ahead of the November ASEAN Summit when a new approach towards Myanmar could be adopted.
On East Timor’s possibly officially becoming ASEAN’s 11th member next year, analysts said the meetings had significantly advanced the country’s application process, which began in 2011 during Indonesia’s last ASEAN chairmanship.
The analysts also noted ASEAN’s efforts to expand their external relations for the bloc’s gain, including signing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) on August 3 – which even saw Ukraine’s application considered – and other sectoral dialogue partnerships with several countries.
The three analysts said Cambodia had taken some bold stances and earned a positive scorecard from them at the mid-point of their tenure as ASEAN chair.
“Not only did Cambodia manage to issue a timely response to a breaking development in ASEAN’s own backyard, it managed to deliver a 119-paragraph Joint Communique addressing all the key points of contention – Myanmar, Ukraine, ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – well before the conclusion of all the meetings.
“It goes to show the level of coordination the host invested and its determination to ensure that text negotiations would not be reopened at the last minute. The decision to move the Cross Strait Development statement [on China-Taiwan] out of the Joint Communique was a good one, as it risked scuttling the negotiated text,” they said.
Although they believe that ASEAN still remains to some extent hostage to great power politics, the analysts also see a rising level of ASEAN influence and power through the bloc’s “unity first” approach despite its internal differences.
“It is without a doubt that ASEAN retained its convening power to bring world powers to the table. However, this in itself is insufficient to command attention when it comes to real-world politics,” they said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen noted last week that some leaders who attended the meetings objected to being seated near their rivals, but he said that the participants had mostly understood the situation as Cambodia is hosting the meeting during a time of unprecedented complexity in global politics.
“Even the seating arrangements were hard to figure out due to the conflict in some regions of Europe. So, the seats had to be separated from each other and it was not easy,” he said, adding that Cambodia nevertheless managed to do it.
Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said Cambodia generally had positive takeaways from the summit as its host, ranging from the successful preparations, excellent hospitality provided to the dignitaries and the smooth handling of diplomatic protocols.
He said Cambodia has now proven that it has an advanced capacity to facilitate and manage these high-level diplomatic meetings and manage to produce a joint statement as a result of each of them, which is no easy task in today’s geopolitical environment.
“The meeting showed Cambodia’s clear stance as the ASEAN chair in favour of building the ASEAN community and maintaining ASEAN Centrality, which is the chair’s most important role,” he said, adding that the Kingdom’s profile has also been raised accordingly.
Regarding the Taiwan issue, Phea said Cambodia and ASEAN had dealt with it in a smart way through a statement which was acceptable to the US, China and Russia, while also making clear ASEAN’s core interests in diffusing tensions and its preference for peaceful negotiations rather than armed conflict.
“We see a degree of unity and solidarity among ASEAN members which is unprecedented. It seems that they have found common positions on many aspects and issues, such as that of Myanmar, in which a clear and strong statement was released telling the SAC that it must change course or the bloc will reconsider its position and attitude,” he said.